hercule poirot makes his way to the platform at gard du nord, paris to board the orient express, en route to a destination we would find exotic. he has his ticket in hand as he approaches the purser standing by the carriage door. the purser has his hand extended to receive the ticket, eager to tick hercule from his boarding list and complete the process in timely fashion for the evening departure.
but as poirot approaches, a gaggle of well-dressed but unruly would-be passengers hustle past him, a mass of legs and luggage, desperate to be first to board the train. as the purser is about to delay their scrabbled approach in favour of the famous detective, poirot signifies that he is possessed of greater patience, and that they should be accommodated prior to his own requirements.
as the last of the raggle taggle clambers the few steps into the orient express luxury coach, and poirot is finally able to hand over his own travel ticket, he mentions to the purser that one of those who preceded him is the guilty party in a yet to be committed murder and the purser can be assured that he/she will receive their timely come-uppence (so to speak).
agatha christie would never have been so bold or so insensitive.
the commonality across both the hercule poirot and miss marple narratives is the predictability of their denouement. both would gather the principal protagonists together in one location, reiterate the various strands of christie's labyrinthine plot, before announcing the guilty party, accompanied by the how and why. at no time during the storyline would anything other than aspersions and suspicions be cast in the direction of a number of principal characters, most of which were red herrings, designed to confound the pseudo-intellectuality of the reader.
irish rider, shay elliot was a product of the fifties and sixties. not entirely before my time, but most certainly before i was aware that the sport of cycle racing existed. in the late sixties and early seventies, as elliot's career was coming to a close, my sole contribution to the world of cycling was aboard a sturmey archer equipped raleigh twenty, delivering newspapers every morning before riding to school where some unknown would systematically ruin the built-in dynamo lights. i mention this not to give the game away as to just how ancient that grey hair really is, but to alert you to my ignorance of the irishman's career. though i had heard of elliot, it was more by way of reference in the autobiography of vin denson, and graeme fife's biography of brian robinson.
other than that, in the words of fawlty towers' manuel, "i know nothing."
that very fact presumably makes me the very reader at which this book by graham healy and richard allchin is aimed. approaching its pages with no preconceptions and little prior knowledge, shay elliot's career was my oyster. it is at this point that i redirect you to my obscure opening, referencing hercule poirot. despite this book comprising 189 pages, on page 124, the author commits what i regard as the cardinal sin by making blatant reference to a fact that will figure large in the latter stages of the narrative. i have no desire to compound the folly by stating just what the author's faux pas consisted, for then i'd be equally as guilty, but it did considerably prejudice my reading of the final chapters. it will likely be seen as a trivial matter by those well-versed in the life of shay elliot, but to assume that of every reader seems, to me at least, an unfortunate assumption.
while autobiographies are generally regarded as a tad more subjective than the biography, this is probably something of a fallacy. as robert burns averred, we often do not see ourselves as others do. the autobiographer is at liberty to proclaim or hide as the situation demands, blessed with greater personal knowledge than a third party. the biographer has the ability and opportunity to be dispassionate yet informed, passing on observation(s) that perhaps the subject would prefer left unsaid. in the case of 'shay elliot', i'm afraid i still had a thirst for knowledge that seemed not to have reached the surface.
do not misunderstand, this is an important book, one that has been a long time coming, and one that is fully justified in terms of a great rider's career and the need to record its passage in an informed and coherent way. in testament to that, both healy and allchin have excelled; the book makes for compulsive reading whichever way you look at it, but ultimately, what do we learn about shay elliot? if i may offer a dissection of sequential paragraph openings...
'although shay finished well down on general calssification in his first big challenge of the year, paris-nice...'
'shortly afterwards, shay wrote to the evening press about his satisfaction with his early season form...'
'in fact it seemed as if it might happen in the first classic of the season, the het volk...'
'after this short foray in the northern classics, shay went back home to paris...'
'his training rides were now steadily increasing in length in preparation for the marathon bordeaux-paris...'
'on the first sunday of june, at 4 o'clock in the morning, shay lined up alongside thirteen others for the start of the mammoth ride to paris.'
and so it goes, and so it goes.
the book and its chapters concern themselves almost exclusively with elliot's racing career, confined to his training, his racing and his results (or lack of). we learn little (sadly) about the man himself; what he was thinking, how he was feeling, what he did in his spare time and any number of other factors that would add up to the complete shay elliot, rather than simply 'shay elliot, racing cyclist'. it would be unkind to level this accusation solely at the authors and give the impression it is not a folly not visited upon others. beryl burton's autobiography personal best completely defied its title and completely obscured the woman from sight.
it is of great credit to both authors that the book is as compulsive reading as has turned out to be the case. perhaps i expect too much; perhaps you will too. either way, it's an unmissable release, and there's a space on everyone's bookcase for ireland's first, foremost and yellow jersey wearer.
shay elliot by graham healy and richard allchin also features forewords by sean kelly and uci president, pat mcquaid.
posted wednesday 6 july 2011